Calm Under Fire Helps Former Tiger Star Young Earn Spot in Texas Rangers' Starting Rotation
By Bill Alden
He stands 6'10 and weighs around 250 pounds. He possesses the athleticism that enables him to throw a baseball 90 m.p.h. or swish a 20-foot jump shot on the basketball court. He has the intelligence that earned him a degree in politics from Princeton University where he was a first-team All-Ivy League performer in both baseball and basketball.
But with all of these gifts, it is Chris Young's unflappable temperament that proved to be his biggest asset as he earned a spot in the starting rotation this spring with the Texas Rangers of the America League.
"It was a competitive time," said Young, recalling his spring training where his outings were job auditions rather than mere exhibition contests.
"It was different for me than someone like Kenny Rogers who was really just tuning up for the season. I was looking to prove that I was part of the rotation. From another standpoint, I tried not to get too caught up in things. I'm going to get 35 starts somewhere this season. I had a solid spring."
Young acknowledged that his call-up to Texas last summer helped calm his nerves as he went about his business this spring. "It allowed me to come in this spring and know that I had the ability to compete at this level," said Young, a Dallas native who went 3-2 with a 4.71 ERA in his 2004 stint with the Rangers. "It meant a lot to me to be able to pitch in a pennant race for a team I grew up watching."
There was no way, however, that Young could control the butterflies in his stomach last August 24 when he made his major league debut on a hot summer night in Texas against the Minnesota Twins.
"It is such a blur to me right now," said Young, 25, recalling his outing in which he went 5 innings and gave up three runs but did not figure in the decision.
"I was nervous and excited. There were so many emotions running together. I don't think it hit me until the next night when I was sitting in the dugout with my teammates."
Young's baseball coach at Princeton, Scott Bradley, was hardly surprised when his protege got the call to go the show. "Chris is one of the most remarkable young men I have ever known," said Bradley, a former major leaguer himself who played catcher for nine seasons with the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners, among other teams.
"Of all the athletes I've coached or played with, Chris has the best mental approach. He has a rare combination of composure and focus. He has the ability to relax in pressure situations and make adjustments on the fly. In my heart and soul, I knew that he would be pitching in the major leagues someday. We take a lot of pride in what he has accomplished."
Bradley believes that Young's special blend of physical and mental talents will enable the right-hander to enjoy a fruitful major league career.
"He may never be a dominant pitcher or an ace but he's going to be a terrific pitcher in the major leagues for a long, long time," asserted Bradley. "He's a real, real solid pitcher. He's going to win a lot of games."
Young, for his part, credits Bradley with playing a major role in his ascension up the baseball ladder. "Coach Bradley has been critical to my development, mentally as well as physically," said Young, who ended his Princeton career in 2000 by going 5-0 in his final season with a 1.13 ERA overall and 1.05 in Ivy games together with 51 strikeouts in 43 innings. "He made me into a professional pitcher. He has provided me with great support."
Bradley's influence on Young continues to this day through weekly phone chats. "I talk to him after every start," said the amiable Young. "When I'm a little down, he gives me a lift. When I'm too up, he keeps me from getting carried away. He's so even-keeled."
Young had to keep an even keel at Princeton as he juggled playing baseball and basketball with his academic obligations. "It was difficult," said Young, who played basketball and baseball in his freshman and sophomore years before signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates and thereby losing his athletic eligibility under Ivy League rules.
"I knew it would be a challenge to play both sports and also do well in school. I played both sports in a high school that was academically challenging so it was something I've been doing for a long time. I learned some important lessons about hard work and discipline. When you put in time in the weight room or with the books, it translates into a good game or a good grade."
Some of the more important lessons Young learned at Princeton came on the basketball court. "That offense is based on attention to detail and discipline," explained Young, who was a first-team All-Ivy player in basketball, scoring a total of 801 points and grabbing 350 rebounds in his two seasons with the program. "If you start cutting corners and taking short-cuts, you're not going to do well nor is the team."
Young's teammate on the Tiger hoops team, Ahmed El-Nokali, said that the tall Texan's special qualities were apparent on the basketball court.
"He had tremendous skills and he was a tremendous leader," said El-Nokali, noting that Young had a chance to sign a contract with the Sacramento Kings of the NBA this past summer. "He had the drive to succeed, he was never satisfied. He could've done just as well in pro basketball as he is doing in baseball."
Like Bradley, El-Nokali sees Young's level-headed approach as a key factor in his success. "A year ago he was in the minors but he had patience," said El-Nokali, who was on hand early last September at Fenway Park to cheer on his friend as he picked up his first major league win in a victory over the Red Sox. "He worked hard, he never complained. He never once stopped believing in himself. His achievement is an inspiration."
Young, for his part, is looking to achieve as much as he can in his shot at the majors.
"The talent level here isn't that different from the minors; it's the subtle things like knowing my pitches and knowing the hitters," said Young, who is 0-0 so far this season after going four innings and giving up three runs against the Angels last week in his first start of the 2005 season. "I want to establish myself as a major league starter. I want to help the team win the pennant and the World Series. It's a process, I know there will be ups and downs."
With Young's special blend of composure and focus, he is a good bet to successfully navigate that process.